Sunday, February 23, 2014

A New Prayer

This past August, I started a new relationship with a woman who lives on the west coast. Over a period of days we had conversations that pushed me. She challenged how I looked at the world, how I looked at others, how I looked at myself. At the end of my trip, as I sat in a plane to fly from LAX back to BWI, I thought of things I wanted to change in my life. I wanted to spend more time outdoors. Pay attention to the cycles of the moon. Watch more sunsets. I wanted to get more ambitious with the meals I prepared for myself.

And though we scarcely broached the topic, I can only assume it was the interactions of the preceding days that motivated me to think about my spiritual being.

Let’s back up a step.

I didn’t grow up with religion. Case in point my experiences in churches and religious settings up to the age of twenty, enumerated:
1) Attending a funeral I can’t remember, at which, by my sister’s account, I spent the bulk of the service thumb wrestling a boy I had just met.
2) Sleeping in a pew at a church in Harlem, that hosted a group of us protesters for a demonstration against the second war in Iraq.
3) Sitting toward the back of the church while children under my care at CTY attended their services.

Despite not being introduced to religion in any meaningful way, at the age of nine or ten I started to pray each night. I don’t recall if there were any explicit motivation, but my best guess is that it had to do with growing up around so many Catholics, few of whom would overtly proselytize, but for so many of whom their faith was a clear aspect of their being.

I developed a custom prayer, anchored around a long list of items to thank and to ask God for. Long enough that I’d more often than not fall asleep before I had finished running through the list. In the morning, I’d try to remember where I’d drifted off and pick up the prayer again. I distinctly remember running through a segment of prayers I hadn't made it to the night before, whilst standing at my station for warm-up calisthenics in fifth grade gym class.

So I trimmed the list to a shorter set of words.

Dear lord, as I lay to rest may my lord please be blessed eternally for all which is good he or she has bestowed upon this world. And may I, my family, and friends please also be blessed. Thank you for listening to these prayers, and may my life please be filled with peace, prosperity, good health, and happiness. Amen.

I thought this prayer every night for over 19 years.

I thought it sleeping alone in my bed in the house I grew up in. I thought it in my college dorm room, and on the air mattress I slept on senior year. I thought it spooning with lovers as we drifted off. I thought it and sighed during the worst periods of my life as my temples ached with an alcoholic throb. I thought it at my happiest and reiterated the thank you a few extra times at the end.

At different points in time, the prayer assumed greater depths. I tried to visualize what peace would look like. Prosperity. Health. Most of all, happiness.

As I settled into my office job with an early morning alarm awaiting me each day, when I was tired more often than not, I settled for cycling through the words.

After 19 years, it wasn’t hard to pray in this style. It was routine. Almost effortless.

And as I rode on that plane, I thought that perhaps it shouldn’t be so easy.

I’m agnostic. Though the lord in my prayer was pretty clearly God, I’ve never been certain if I believe in God. But I do believe in something, rooted in goodness and karma. A sense of overarching order and justice, or that these things at least should be in place and that this greater system deserves thanks and homage. The best way I know to make these notions coagulate and to communicate with them is to call them God, as imprecise and incomplete as that proper noun has always been for me.

And so, at a cruising altitude of 30,000 feet, between the final chapters of John Irving's In One Person, episodes of Girlson DVD, revising the short story I was toiling over, and napping--between all of these things, I drafted a new prayer. Less formal. Less about God, per se. Less artificially worldly, if a bit more self-centered. More about reflection. More about looking forward. More about finding peace, perspective, and meaning. More about active thought, over rote recitation.

Today, I am grateful for ________________.
Tomorrow, I want ___________________.
For my life, I want __________________.

Thank you.

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